"Mother," by John Lennon.
The world is full of terrible stories, and they repeat with disturbing frequency. They repeat, although the same story may unwind in thousands of different ways. The same story, now banal, now unhinged, now somewhat comedic, now poignant, now terrifying, now boring, but always new to those who are experiencing it. These are the stories that are our lives.
The story of John Lennon’s early childhood was common enough, featuring parental instability, abandonment, neglect, and who knows what all else. A double abandonment, actually, and that seems to have been the key to the trauma of it. Old Alfie was a merchant seaman, and a guy’s got to make a living, now hasn’t he? He doesn’t seem, in retrospect, to have been a great candidate for successful fatherhood. He was, from the beginning, mostly gone, and finally gone for good. Julia, well, what do we know of her? Impatient? Irresponsible? Selfish? Dilatantish? A bit off-center? Perhaps. At least it’s fair to say that she proved in the end that she had little interest in our Johnny. The final acts of abandonment came when John was five years old, and they came with the kind of great drama that a boy never forgets, not even close to forgets. An aunt and uncle, Mimi and George, took over the parenting duties and seem to have made quite a good go of it. Julia was off on her own somewhere, close enough to visit, but remote enough to be just teasing the idea of having a mom who gave a shit.
This song, “Mother,” is very interesting to me, for two reasons. One reason is personal, and the other one is incidental.
Personally, my story also features a parent suffering from mental instability and a parent who abandoned me. Different facts, different drama, but similarly unsuitable for raising a happy, well-adjusted child. Sometimes I wonder if I’ve been too hard on John. I’ve been very hard on him, since the beginning, and it’s only gotten worse over time. Early on I found him to be a snotty, sarcastic brat, an un-entertaining wise-ass who expected to be treated like a genius on little real evidence. Later, as he abandoned his own family and began treating everyone in sight very badly, all the while acting like a know-it-all genius, I took a genuine disliking to him.
Today I’m ready to admit that it’s possible that I should cut John more slack. He lived through his own drama, and it made him the man that he was. That happens to all of us, so maybe it’s best to chalk his bad behavior up to the wide range of normality and be more forgiving.
The “incidental” reason that this song is interesting to me has to do with my main complaint about the Beatles in general. Certainly they were a very good set-up-and-play bar band in their day, and certainly they made some records that were very, very good, but to me there was always something important that was missing. There never seemed to be an ounce of sincerity in any of it, not a whiff. And then, as if by magic, John blossomed into a solo career that evinced sincerity in buckets, with “Mother” being the prime example.
I’ll let the Freudians analyze the reasons why the situation kept everything plastic and coldly commercial while the band was together. Well, to be fair, either coldly commercial or coldly desperate to be cool and modern. It was always either one way or the other, but it was always cold, featuring insincerity that you could not chip away with a sledge and a cold chisel.
Boy, that was almost a kind word for John Lennon. I must be getting old. A very qualified kind word for John, but notice that I’m not there yet regarding the Beatles. I still think that the Beatles are the most overrated band in music history. Sure, they were very good, but OVERRATED by several hundred percent. I still would not trade you Hunky Dory for the entire Beatles catalog. They don’t have an LP in my top-twenty.*
“Mother,” thanks for that, John. I can sing that song about myself. Every word works for me as well as it worked for you. We both suffered for our parents’ sins. I suppose that I should just thank God that I turned out as well as I did, and kindhearted at least. It could have been worse.
*I admit that I really like the Beatles’ 45 RPM record, “Paperback Writer” b/w “Rain.”